By Thomas Gerbasi, photo by Hoganphotos
Itís been over nine months since his last fight against Danny Green, but Antonio Tarver has never been one to let go of past slights.
ďI went into the Green fight a 5 to 1 underdog,Ē said an incredulous Tarver, who went to Greenís backyard of Australia last July and knocked his foe out in the ninth round. ď5 to 1 underdog? The whole country could have come back right (if it would have bet on him).Ē
Then comes the laugh, one like no other in the boxing business. Itís probably the best part about talking to the former light heavyweight champion, a genuine and infectious bellow that only comes slightly ahead of the second best part of talking to him: his passion for the game.
Whether you agree with him or not, there is no disputing the fact that Tarver cares. About his craft, his legacy, about anything he puts his hands on and time into. You have to respect that.
ďThe passion never left,Ē said the 43-year old from Tampa, who is currently preparing for his Showtime main event on June 2nd against unbeaten Lateef Kayode. ďItís always been there. The passion to be champ, the passion to win, the passion to go down in history as one of the great fighters of this era. All that still drives me. Iím still winning championships. They want to put me in the same category as a Roy Jones, as a James Toney, and these characters. And itís not even the same. I ainít seen one of those guys winning a title or come close to winning a title of any sort in years. How can they be calling for me to retire? Are they kidding?Ē
Tarver is one of the last 40-somethings of his era still standing. Fans have been calling for Toney to retire for years. Jones has lost three of his last four, two by knockout. Glen Johnson has dropped three of his last four as well, and Bernard Hopkins recently lost his title to Chad Dawson. Tarver, winner of five of his last seven, with the only losses being back-to-back decision defeats against Dawson, is perhaps just a win over Kayode away from another big fight. And if he fights the way he did against Green, he isnít likely to be a 5 to 1 underdog on the oddsmakersí sheets.
And itís not that he has been remarkably blessed with a fountain of youth to keep him from the ravages of age, but the facts are there. He did turn pro very late at 28, he has ďonlyĒ 35 pro bouts, and he hasnít been in a host of brutal wars.
ďIíve taken care of myself and I really havenít been abused in the ring,Ē he said. ďIíve never been dominated in a fight. My worst performance was against Hopkins and I donít know what happened that night but something happened and thatís it. Other than that, I have the best defense in the business, and Iíve stayed 16 years in the pro game and never been cut, never had my nose broken, never been unconscious, and never been dropped where I was hurt to the point that they had to count over me. People donít understand that it takes a gift, it takes a talent to be in the game this long and to have been as successful as I have. I know who I am, and Iím a great fighter, whether they ever admit it or not. Iíve been doing this since I was 10 years old and Iíve been the best on all levels. Itís not by accident that Iím here. I can fight and I know the game back and forth.Ē
Perhaps most importantly, he also knows that at 43, he canít train like he did when he was a kid.
ďIt takes a little while longer to get into tip top shape and you have to do it smartly and have to do it gradually,Ē he said of life in the 40ís. ďItís not gonna happen overnight, and right now, weíre just training smarter rather than training harder. Iím not beating myself up.Ē
Heís keeping an open mind in the gym as well, with trainers Jimmy Williams and Buddy McGirt both keeping him on his toes with new techniques and strategies and even some old school stuff here and there.
ďYou always can learn,Ē he said. ďEven if itís learning stuff you forgot (Laughs), you never stop learning no matter how long youíve been in the game. And I think the key to the longevity is that when you get tired of suffering then you need to hang it up. I still donít mind suffering and I still suffer in the gym in preparation for my fights. I work hard, and the sacrifices I make are still as significant as they were when I started. When that stuff gets tiring and you want to slack off and not do the things that are necessary, then you gotta hang Ďem up.Ē
Tarverís not looking at that option right now though, not with a high-profile headliner against Kayode coming up. On paper, the 29-year old Nigerian has the hunger and style to find out whether 43 is just a number for ďThe Magic Man,Ē but then again, people said that about the Green fight. The way Tarver sees it, 18 pro fights arenít nearly enough for Kayode to be ready for what heís bringing to the Home Depot Center next month.
ďHe ainít the bully coming into this fight,Ē he said of Kayode. ďHe thinks heís the bully, but I knock bullies out because they donít know how tough I am. You canít take my heart. That ainít ever gonna happen. So heís coming in here with a false sense of security, and Iím gonna put his ass in check early and often in this fight.Ē
Itís vintage Tarver, whose mouth hasnít lost a step at all over the years. Then thereís that laugh again, followed by a statement of intent that he will do whatever it takes to stick to. If he succeeds, he may never stop talking.
ďIf they canít beat you, they canít stop you,Ē said Tarver, now fighting at cruiserweight. ďIím on a mission right now. Iím gonna clean up this cruiserweight division, then Iím gonna clean up the heavyweight division, and Iím bringing the heavyweight title back to America. Thatís my quest. What are they gonna do when I win the heavyweight title? What are they gonna say then, when I beat Wladimir Klitschko? He told us so. (Laughs) They can ignore me all they want. Iím coming.Ē
In other words, if youíre getting on the bandwagon, the time is now, because he wonít have any problem turning you away if youíre not with him. Itís this blunt appraisal of any situation that has garnered him a Twitter following of over 13,000 and counting. And heís enjoying every minute of it as well, begging the question, what would he have done with social media if it were around when he was chasing down his longtime nemesis Jones?
ďIíd be a Twitter phenomenon,Ē he laughs. But with that ship sailed, the rivalry settled, and the two men in distinctly different stages in their careers, Tarver moves on, and hopefully forward. Ne insists that when itís time to go, heíll go. Maybe not quietly, but heíll go. But until then, youíre just going to have to deal with him.
ďWhen I lose my quest to become heavyweight champion, Iím gonna ride off into the sunset,Ē said Tarver. ďBut Iím gonna get my shot, trust me. Iím gonna do everything I have to do, continue to win, until they cannot deny me. And thatís what Iím focused on.Ē